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'Little Things' from a Big Voice: Toby Lightman
by Gregg Shapiro
2004-03-10

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As is the case with many new artists, Toby Lightman is being compared to other female vocalists and songwriters who came before her. Names such as Sheryl Crow, Dusty Springfield and Alicia Keys are just a few that have been mentioned. One name, that of Rosey, hasn't been mentioned yet, so allow me. Like Rosey (whose 'Love' was heard in the movie Bridget Jones Diary), Lightman blends folk and funk for a rootsy R&B feel that is as hot as it is cool. Lightman's debut disc Little Things (Lava) has a soulful snap to it, inspiring toe-tapping and head-bobbing, while also providing some thought-provoking lyrics.

Gregg Shapiro: I interviewed Jonatha Brooke and we talked about how exciting it is that there is a renewed interest in singer/songwriters. How does it feel to be one of those singer/songwriters?

Toby Lightman: I think that, right now, music needs some real stuff to come out. It's been the same for a while. I've always been looking for something new. I always like to hear people writing their own music and I love reading other people's lyrics. It's exciting that people who do that are breaking through.

GS: Your debut disc has a seamless rock and soul fusion. Was it tricky to synthesize both styles of music and make it sound natural and unforced?

TL: Yeah. I have a lot of different influences. My producer [Peter Zizzo] always says that trying to fuse them together is like trying to land on a dime. I'm not one way or the other 100 percent and really I wanted to find a way to incorporate everything that I listen to, which is a lot of classic rock and hip-hop and old soul and R&B. Some songs lean more towards one genre than the other, but they all kind of represent me.

GS: I understand you started writing songs in college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was wondering if being in that kind of atmosphere provided you with the impetus to perform your songs in front of your peers?

TL: When you first start writing songs— for me, at least, I was feeling very [laughs] vulnerable and uncomfortable singing them in front of people. You're laying down what you're thinking and you kind of don't want people to know [laughs]. But I had friends who were really supportive and they liked that I did that. I would write songs about them, and jokes, so it made it fun. It was a cool environment in which to start.

GS: Did you find college audiences to be appreciative?

TL: I think that younger kids are really attentive, but they have short-term attention spans. They can't pay attention for more than five minutes. Whereas, [in] college I think it's more like 10 minutes [laughs]. I think they're cool once they realize it's something [they might like] to listen to, but if it's not, then it's really hard.

GS: Do you find there are certain segments of the audience with which you connect faster—female listeners, gay men?

TL: It seems very diverse. At first I thought it would be a lot of women, just because a lot of the songs I write are about experiences in relationships and love and things like that. But I've been getting e-mails from men. Even some gay men, I've gotten e-mails from, talking about how they and their boyfriends love the songs.

GS: What was the experience of working with Nile Rogers on the track 'Devils and Angels' like for you?

TL: I hate to say it, but I wasn't familiar with his name. When I saw what he had done, I was freaking out [laughs]. He was very cool and courteous. No attitude. He didn't have his cell phone on the whole time. It was just down to business. He played great and definitely added that funk element that we were looking for.

GS: 'Coming Back In' and 'Devils and Angels' deal with unfaithful lovers—why do you think infidelity and heartbreak make for such good songwriting fodder?

TL: 'Coming Back In' is about trying to get away from a relationship that you know isn't right for you. Unfortunately, it's definitely easy to write songs about bad situations [laughs]. You get motivation from dark mood. I don't know why.

GS: 'Don't Wanna Know' sounds like a musical fan letter. Was it written with a particular performer in mind?

TL: I don't have anybody specific that I can think of. I was never drop-dead about anybody, because I like so many different people. At first, the first name that crossed my mind was Lenny Kravitz.

GS: 'Front Row' is sort of the flipside—it's a musical love letter to a fan.

TL: When you're a performer, a singer or an actor, you always notice somebody in the audience. Back in the '70s, they acted on it. Personally, I don't know if I would, because they're strangers. But it's still fun to look and see what's out there. At the end of the day, I'm not going to do anything about it [laughs].

GS: 'Everyday' is the most folk-oriented track. Do your songs begin like that and are enhanced with funk or hip-hop touches later or do you hear them with all those accoutrements when you write them?

TL: I write everything on acoustic guitar. When you write on that instrument it tends to lean towards a folk aspect. It's hard not to associate it with that. 'Everyday' was a really personal song for me. Peter, my producer, and I decided that it would show the song off more if it was stripped down, as opposed to every other song that had other things in it.

GS: I was told you did a cover of Mary J. Blige's 'Real Love,' at a showcase in New York. Do you plan on working that song or other covers into your live shows?

TL: I've been playing that song a lot because it's one of those songs that when you hear it, you smile and you get excited. I love that song and I love her. There are a couple of other cover ideas that I have in mind, but for the most part I don't want to overwhelm the set with them.


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